Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' ascension from Navy JAG officer to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee has been marked by incendiary policies, spats with the national media and his personal crusade against “wokeness.” Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo
May 24 (UPI) -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis entered the 2024 race for president on Wednesday on the heels of a legislative session that brought a new level of conservatism to his record.
DeSantis' announcement that he is seeking the Republican nomination sets up an eventual showdown with former President Donald Trump, who had endorsed DeSantis for governor in 2018.
Following the gameplan of the former president, DeSantis sought to make a splash with his announcement, utilizing social media and Twitter owner Elon Musk to break the news. The pair were to hold an audio interview on Twitter Spaces, which they did, but not until after more than 20 minutes of technical issues.
Eventually, DeSantis was able to announce what most people already suspected.
"I am running for president of the United States to lead our great American comeback," DeSantis said.
The Florida governor's ascension from Navy JAG officer to the governor's mansion in Tallahassee has been marked by incendiary policies, spats with the national media and his personal crusade against "wokeness."
More recently, DeSantis has directed his ire at Disney World by attempting to remove its self-governing powers after it publicly opposed his Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law because it prohibits discussion of sex and gender identity in the classroom.
The governor has strong support in Tallahassee, where the Republican Party holds a super majority in the state Legislature. This has yielded a high volume of laws that fit the party's and DeSantis' political agendas, including anti-LGBTQ policies, loosened gun regulations and restrictions on what can be taught in Florida's classrooms.
Charles Barrilleaux, LeRoy Collins professor of political science at Florida State University, said DeSantis' policies have been well received by his core supporters and he has been more consistent in his stances than Trump has.
"Gov. DeSantis took the opportunity presented by Trumpism and packaged it as a more focused and capable doctrine," Barrilleaux said in an email to UPI. "He's sort of pushing some MAGA policies but is more organized and competent."
Florida, a former battleground state, has turned into a Republican stronghold.
Path to governorship
DeSantis was elected to represent Florida's Sixth District in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 and won re-election twice. During his time working in the Capitol, he toed the party line, voting in favor of funding Trump's border wall.
Long before DeSantis unveiled his staunchly right-wing agenda in Florida, he embraced political tactics that evoke those of Trump.
In the 2018 governor's race against Democrat Andrew Gillum, in which DeSantis' made racially tinged comments, he won by 32,463 votes.
In his hometown of Dunedin, Fla., a city of about 36,000 north of Clearwater in Pinellas County, he was a polarizing figure. Gillum won Pinellas County by about 13,000 votes. But by 2022, DeSantis had gained more traction at home, taking in 231,284 votes, about 24,000 more than he received in 2018.
Kevin Wagner, professor and chair of Florida Atlantic University's department of political science, said the shift in Republican voters to focus on social and identity issues has played into DeSantis' success.
"DeSantis did pretty well in traditional Democratic counties like Palm Beach County," Wagner said in a recent interview with UPI. "Party is a part of identity. So much is tied up into world views that there isn't much movement.
"Especially in Florida, it's about voter turnout," Wagner said. "Look at turnout in Miami-Dade and Broward [in South Florida]. If the numbers are not high, you know the Republican strength in northern Florida is going to prevail."
'Repressive social agenda'
Marginalized groups have found themselves the targets of DeSantis' politics, from the anti-trans bill package he signed into law last week to his near ban on abortion. His election "reform" threatens to quiet the voices of marginalized communities even more.
Alicia Hughes, professor and interim director of the Center for Civil Rights and Social Justice at Emory Law School, said many of the policies being pushed in Florida are driven by fear of the other.
"The agenda is disconcerting, for sure and naturally, it follows that the bills are disconcerting because they reflect a repressive social agenda that does not respect the very foundation of democracy upon which we, as a nation of laws, were founded," Hughes said in a recent interview with UPI.
"We are upending American life as we have known it, so much so that there is danger to not recognizing ourselves decades from now."
DeSantis vetoed a bipartisan redistricting plan from the Florida Legislature in March. He proceeded to submit his own version of the newly drawn congressional districts the following month, which he quickly signed into law with little resistance.
Since DeSantis' redistricting -- or gerrymandering -- Hughes has been closely tracking a bill in Tallahassee that would place steep penalties on groups that help people register to vote.
Senate Bill 7050 reduces the window in which these groups can gather and return voter registration forms and makes it illegal for certain people to handle voter applications, including illegal immigrants and people convicted of certain felonies.
Penalties facing groups that violate provisions on who can handle applications or miss the window for turning in registrations range from $50 to $50,000 per violation.
This bill is likely to disproportionately impact minorities, resulting in fewer members of minority communities being registered to vote, according to a report by Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. Smith researched the issue when similar legislation was proposed in 2021, Senate Bill 90.
"Persons of color in Florida are five times more likely to rely on [third-party voter registration organizations] when registering to vote than White individuals," Smith wrote. "Both the academic literature and my data analysis finds that the costs of voting fall most heavily on persons of color."
Smith further argued that the law would decrease the opportunities to vote for thousands of people.
The effects on voting access and DeSantis' education policies have drawn comparisons to Jim Crow laws, which made racial segregation legal into the 1960s.
"I would consider it the new Jim Crow," Debbie Deland, president of the Florida National Organization for Women, told UPI. "They're trying to erase Black history. They don't want to deal with Black issues. They're canceling race and gender studies in schools."
Appealing to 'reactionaries'
J. Edwin Benton, politics professor at the University of South Florida and author of Government and Politics in Florida (fourth edition), has lived and worked in Florida for 45 years, but said DeSantis was not on his radar until his campaign for governor.
"All of a sudden, he got these ambitions a few years ago to seek the Republican nomination. He became this guy that was anti-everything," Benton told UPI. "I'm fairly conservative but I believe in freedom of speech and academic freedom. He's claiming to make Florida a freer place while trampling on the First Amendment."
The appeal of DeSantis, much like Trump, lies on the fringes of society, Benton said. People he refers to as "reactionaries" have become activated politically by identity politics and culture wars.
"He has awakened a group of people, far-right conservatives. People who are not mainstream Republicans or maybe not even mainstream Americans," he said. "I call his people 'reactionaries.' They react to their phobias and their biases, whether it be racial biases or gender or sexual orientation."
As DeSantis has drawn closer to becoming a household name, Benton believes he has taken his eye off the task at hand: governing Florida.
"When there was flooding in Fort Lauderdale, he couldn't be found," Benton said. "A lot of people look at that, that he neglected his citizens in his own state. What's he going to do for me in Iowa, Montana, Wisconsin?"
Though organizations like the Libertarian think tank Cato Institute have graded DeSantis positively for his economic approach, his extreme agenda may have soured Florida's business community.
The war with Disney reached new heights last week when the entertainment giant backed out of a $1 billion construction deal that would have expanded its footprint and created 2,000 new jobs.
"You don't play with a mouse," Benton said. "The tiff with Disney is concerning people in the business community. Other companies are seeing that, 'If he treats them that way and we say the wrong thing, we're his enemy.'"
Broadening gun rights
DeSantis has also signed a permitless concealed carry bill into law that will go into effect on July 1. It will allow anyone who is eligible for a gun license to carry a concealed weapon by carrying a valid form of identification.
Another bill awaiting his signature, the "Florida Arms and Ammo Act," would prohibit credit card companies from flagging suspicious purchases of firearms and ammunition with unique merchant codes.
Sen. Danny Burgess, the Zephyrhills Republican who sponsored the bill, tweeted that it will prevent credit card companies from creating "quasi gun owner registries."
Patricia Brigham, president of Prevent Gun Violence Florida, told UPI there are more than 2.6 million concealed carry permit holders in the state. To acquire a permit, a person must be 21 years old or older, pass a background check, submit fingerprints and take a firearm proficiency course.
Brigham argues that without the need for a permit, it will be harder for police to investigate incidents of gun violence and it will be easier for people who are ineligible to receive a permit to carry a firearm.
More gun legislation may be on the way. Lawmakers including Fine have co-sponsored a bill that would repeal a portion of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act to reduce the age requirement for a concealed weapon permit to 18. The bill was introduced just weeks after the five-year anniversary of the Parkland high school shooting that killed 17.
"This is a major betrayal to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas community," Brigham said. "They're never satisfied. They always want more. Nowhere in the Bible did I see anything about a God-given right to carry a gun."